Entering the season, the Angels bullpen appeared to be the club’s most obvious weakness; it was filled with castoffs, unproven youngsters, and past-their-prime veterans. However, the bullpen has actually turned out to be one of the team’s bright spots thus far.
The group’s 3.62 ERA ranks eighth in baseball and fifth in the American League. This unexpected success has been the result of a few standout performances from pitchers like Blake Parker, Bud Norris, David Hernandez, and Yusmeiro Petit. And the success of the team’s relief corps has been even more surprising due to the fact that the three relievers who were expected to be the Angels’ best—Andrew Bailey, Cam Bedrosian, and Huston Street—have been hurt for most, if not all, of the season.
But later today, Bedrosian, the best of those three, is set to be activated from the disabled list, adding a true relief ace to an already dependable bullpen. Bedrosian came into his own last season, and he was continuing that dominance this year before succumbing to an injury a few weeks into the season.
In his 47 innings pitched since the start of last season, Bedrosian owns a 0.96 ERA, which is second only to Baltimore’s Zach Britton among all relievers with at least 40 innings pitched in that span. In his 6 2⁄3 shutout innings in 2017, Bedrosian punched out nine batters, or 37.5% of those faced, and walked none.
In Bedrosian’s absence, Norris took over the closer’s role and has excelled in it, which is why Bedrosian likely won’t get his job back immediately, though it may become a more interchangeable role. Since Norris earned his first career save on April 22, he has posted a 1.90 ERA and struck out 31 in 232⁄3 innings, and opposing hitters have produced just a .200 batting average.
Then there’s Parker, whose 1.00 FIP ranks third in the majors. The breakout righty has struck out 37.3% of the batters he’s faced while walking only nine batters in 31 1⁄3 innings this year. He has appeared in 33 games to this point and has walked away with at least one strikeout 27 times.
Bedrosian, Norris, and Parker would be a great late-inning trio in its own right, but the Angels will have a quartet of dominant relievers to lock down games thanks to young fireballer Keynan Middleton.
Last year, Middleton put his name on the map when his fastball was clocked at 102 mph in his first Triple-A appearance. And while his fastball hasn’t reached those heights this year, it hasn’t mattered. The right-hander has a 3.00 ERA in 18 innings since he made his major-league debut last month. And though he struggled initially, Middleton has settled in nicely, allowing three runs across his last 15 outings (13 innings). Over that stretch, he has fanned 11 batters and held opposing batters to a .174/.255/.289 line.
Oh, and that fastball averages over 95 mph while his slider, which hitters whiff on nearly 60% of the time they swing at, sits around 86 mph, faster than five qualified major leaguers’ fastballs.
Bedrosian, Norris, Parker, and Middleton all possess fastballs with average velocities greater than 94 mph and at just under 25%, Middleton is the only one who strikes out less than 30% of the batters they face. For context, the Angels bullpen finished last in the majors in strikeout rate at less than 19% and third-to-last in average fastball velocity at about 92 mph in 2016.
Simply put, the four give the Angels late-inning security and, most importantly, late-inning flexibility.
Four equally dominant relievers without clearly defined roles will give Mike Scioscia the opportunity to deploy them as he sees fit and when he sees fit. Last year’s postseason saw multiple managers stray away from traditional bullpen roles, often opting to use their best reliever in the highest leverage situation rather than waiting around for a save opportunity that may never come.
Now, Scioscia can do just that. Because none of the four are necessarily attached to a particular late-inning role, he can utilize each pitcher whenever the matchup benefits them most without having to worry about not having anyone to finish out the game. Furthermore, Scioscia won’t have to worry about burning his one reliable reliever one day and being without them the next, as he has four of them.
One thing holding teams back from ditching bullpen roles is the rigid mentality some relievers—like the Angels’ Street, who said he would retire if he was asked to do anything other than exclusively close games—have. For the current unit of Angels relievers, that hasn’t appeared to be a problem, and Bedrosian told the OC Register yesterday, “The plan is to go whenever they tell me. Just come in and help the team. That’s it.”
Even if Norris is locked down to the ninth inning for the time being, no single player is specifically assigned to pitch in any one of the prior innings like they may have been on recent Scioscia-led Angels teams. If the Angels had a lead after the sixth inning In 2014, for instance, Kevin Jepsen pitched the seventh, Joe Smith pitched the eighth, and Street pitched the ninth. That was always the pattern no matter the case, and the three rarely pitched in a situation other than the one determined to be theirs.
And Scioscia has already demonstrated a willingness to experiment with bullpen usage this year, tasking Bedrosian with recording five outs on one occasion and six outs on another. Additionally, 10 of Peitit’s 25 outings have consisted of two or more innings, and Scioscia even called upon Parker to get out of a fourth-inning jam of a game the Angels would come back to win last week.
The Angels bullpen was already great, but Bedrosian’s return makes it even deeper and more flexible, allowing the Angels to demand less of their starting pitchers and more easily win tight contests, which is especially important since they have an injury-depleted rotation and are currently without the game’s best player.